History of Formula 1

The history of Formula One racing closely follows that of technological development of the automobile industry itself. Known initially as Formula A, the present name became synonymous with motor-racing worldwide since the 1950's.

Ndtv Correspondent  |  Last updated on Thursday, 24 March 2011 17:22 Print font size - +

Formula One reflections
The history of Formula One racing closely follows that of technological development of the automobile industry itself. Known initially as Formula A, the present name became synonymous with motor-racing worldwide since the 1950's.

Post-War inception  (1946- 1950)
It was in 1946 that Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) defined the races as a premier single-seater racing category worldwide.  CSI was part of Federation Internationale de l'Automobile's (FIA) and in the early years, the races were categorized according to pre-war regulations defined by engine capacity. The objective was to bring about a certain co-relation between super-charged cars (type of air-compressor that is used for forced induction, mechanically) and the normally aspirated ones.

Non supercharged 4.5 litre pre-war Grand Prix cars were allowed to race against the 1.5 litre supercharged ones. The pre-war super-charged Grand Prix cars were however,  banned. The first race according to the new regulations was the 1946 Turin Grand Prix. It was won by Achille Varzi of Italy in his Alfa Romeo 158 Alfetta.

Interestingly, Championships for drivers or constructors were not introduced immediately.  There were around 20 races held from late spring to early autumn in Europe, although not all of these were considered significant. Most competitive cars came from Italy, particularly Alfa Romeo.

Noted drivers: Achille Varzi, Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio

Early years, loft dreams (1950s)
The Motorcycle World Championships was introduced in 1949. Possibly as a reaction FIA launched the first ever official World Championship for Drivers using the Formula One rules. That the races were scheduled to be held across six major Grand Prix tracks in Europe as well as Indianapolis 500 was a result of intense planning in the previous years.

The Italian teams were expected to dominate the series. Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati along with French manufacturer Talbot and BRM of Britain participated in the 1950 season.

Interestingly, a number of private cars also participated in the local races. They were mainly people belonging to the influential strata of European society.

Alfa Romeo dominated the entire 1950 season, winning every race in their pre-war Alfetta 158s, except in Indianapolis 500, though it was not run to Formula One regulations and was removed from the Championships from 1960 onwards.

One of the main reasons for the early success of Alfa Romeo was that its engines were extremely powerful for their capacity. Though the Alfetta 158s had a 159 engine that produced 420 bhp, the fuel consumption of 125 to 175 litres to every 100 kilometers became a quick concern in the ensuing years.

It was this concern that got Ferrari to come with their V12 4.5 litre normally aspirated 375s. The car gulped 35 litres of fuel for every 100 kilometers and gave fierce competition to the Alfetta's  by the end of the 1951 sesaon.  As a result, state-owned Alfa Romeo had to withdraw as the Italian government refused an expansive re-design of their existing model and technology.

Ferrari therefore built on its new found dominance and in fact extended it with their 4-cylinder powered 500s in the 1952 and 1953 season. The lack of serious competition also made promoters of World Championship Grands Prix switch to Formula Two  regulations. It however could not stop Ferrari's Alberto Ascari from racing to glory in the two editions.

Formula One regulations returned in the 1954 season now based on the 2.5-litre atmospheric engines. Two new names in Mercedes and Lancia too came to the fore and picked up Juan Manuel Fangio and Ascari respectively. Mercedes in particular, introduced many changes from streamlined bodywork, fuel injection and exotic alloys. Not surprisingly then, Fangio dominated the 1954 and 1955 seasons. A crash of one of their cars at Le Mans which killed 83 however, was an important factor that possibly led to Mercedes disappearing from the scene for the next 40 years.

Interestingly, Ascari crashed his Lancia at Monaco in the same season and had to be rescued from the waters. Speculations however point towards internal injuries that possibly led to his second crash at Monza four days later when he was testing a sportscar. He lost his life and Lancia withdrew from the Championships giving away its technological know-how to Ferrari.

Fangio returned in the 1956 season to retain the title in his Lancia-improved Ferrari.

1958 saw a F1 champion emerging from Britain for the first time as Mike Hawthorn walked away with the coveted trophy.

The later years of the decade had many prolific changes like shortening of races from 500 kilometers to 300 kilometers, retirement  of Fangio, the usage of Avgas (high octane aviation fuel) and the emergence of Stirling Moss who had many wins to his credit despite driving a mid-engine Cooper which had its engine mounted behind the driver.

The decade of change and rollbacks (1960s)
Besides the entry of Lotus, the early years of the decade were marked by the mid-engine revolution that rendered many cars obsolete. Speed curbs were also introduced forcing the return of 1.5 litre, non-supercharged  engine.  Ferrari though went ahead and introduced its 120° V6 engine that helped the team dominate the 1961 season.

In 1962, Lotus introduced its Lotus 25 powered by the new Coventry-Climax FWMV V8 engine. There was a marked change in the chassis design and though an improvement, reliability issues hounded its initial launch. Jim Clarke who made his debut in 1960 for Lotus finished second in the following season while Graham Hill in his V8 powered BRM took the title.

The ensuing years saw a lot of experimentations in terms of engine modification. In the 1964 season, Ferrari experimented with as many as three engine variants - V6, V8 and a flat-12.  Power though returned to the track only in 1966. Engines of 3.0 litre normally aspirated, or 1.5 litre supercharged capacity were allowed, increasing the scope for innovations and experimentations.

The list of changes:
1967 - Ferrari comes up with its 3 litre V12 sportscar that is billed as a favourite but is dogged by weight issues.  BRM comes up with an extremely heavy and complex H-16 which did improve mechanical balance but at the cost of power-to-weight ratio.

1967 - Lotus launches Lotus 49 powered by the Ford-Cosworth DFV V8 engine that dominated Formula One for the next decade. Rhodesian driver John Love also took the motoring world by storm in this season, with his 2.7 litre four-cylinder Cooper-Climax.

1968 - Lotus lost its exclusive rights to use DFV engine which led to McLaren launching a DFV-powered car.  But the major development this year which continues to have a deep impact in the motor-racing world of today was the advent of unrestricted sponsorship. FIA gave its approval mainly due to the withdrawal of support from major automobile related firms. 

Interestingly, in May that year, Lotus Formula One team came out at Jarama in the red, gold and white colours of Imperial Tobacco. The second innovation that followed soon after was the introduction of wings. Lotus' founder Colin Chapman started the arms race with modest front wings and a spoiler on Graham Hill's Lotus 49B at Monaco. At the end of the season, most of the cars were using wings.

1969 - Safety issues came to the fore at the start of this season. Apart from this, interest in four-wheel-drive was also renewed.

The decade of the Ferrari vs Mercedes (1970s)
New decade meant new features, designs and new drivers. Goodyear introduced slick tyres for the first time in 1970 while Lella Lombardi became the first amongst very few women to pick points in the championship.

The main innovation in this decade however, came in 1975 with Ferrari launching its 312T that had a substantially better weight distribution. As a corollary, it won the title in 1975, 1976 and  1977 courtesy Austrian racer Niki Lauda. But it always had McLaren on close heels as they finished in the top-three in all the three years.

Lotus had been having mediocre performance in these years but it did reveal its Lotus 78 which became a benchmark for designs that radically increased downforce. They followed it up with Lotus 79 and Mario Andretti came up with a stunning win to become the first driver to win the American IndyCar Championship and the Formula One title.

Interestingly, small teams like Wolf and Hesketh registered good performances despite the odds being stacked against them. In the 1975 season for instance, Hesketh won the Dutch Grand Prix through James Hunt despite refusing sponsorship and fielding a single car.

Renault too entered the motoring scene around this time and with them, radial tires from Michelin were brought to the Formula One Championships.

Enter Williams and that 'turbo-charged' rivalry(1980s)
Brazil's Nelson Piquet won the 1983 title for his Brabham team. This was the first instance of a title being won by a turbo-charged engine. The power achieved by the turbocharged cars could finally match the 640 hp without a huge consumption of very explosive special fuel. By 1987, some cars were registering 1000 bhp in short spaces during qualifying. The thirsty turbo engines though briefly saw refuelling introduced into the sport, but this was banned for 1984.

The decade also saw Lauda coming out of retirement and out-pacing his McLaren teammate Alain Prost in the 1984 Grand Prix. Another driver in Ayrton Senna also emerged as a potential force in the early years of the decade. Close finishes became a common sight as the Senna-Prost rivalry became legendary.

Another rivalry that perhaps got outshone was that between Williams teammates Piquet and Nigel Mansell. The team though benefitted, winning the 1986 edition and finishing strong the next year.

Turbo's were banned in 1989 despite most cars running on it in the previous years. What continued though, was Senna-Prost dominating the circuit and each scoring almost twice as many points as the third-place driver.

Modern age that changed F1 (1990'S)
Lightweight television cameras attached to the cars became common in the early 1990s. As a natural consequent, audience figures received a massive boost. While sponsors too flocked in, it was Senna's move to Williams to replace a retired Prost and a young Micahel Schumacher's promising debut that marked the opening years.

The year that changed all: 1994 was the year remembered mostly for the false sense of calm that it promised. It had been almost a decade of no major accident but it was all to change when Rubens Barrichello sustained serious injuries during the San Marino Grand Prix. In fact, many believe that the race was inauspicious when Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger lost his life during the qualifiers the next day.

Senna met his fellow drivers and is believed to have expressed his desire to re-create a Drivers Safety Group. The race itself began with an accident when JJ Lehto's Benetton-Ford stalled, and an unsighted Pedro Lamy rammed him in his Lotus-Mugen Honda at nearly full speed. A wheel was torn off the car and landed in the main grandstand, injuring eight fans and a police officer.

As Senna entered the high-speed Tamburello corner on the next lap, the car left the track at high speed, hitting the concrete retaining wall at around 135 mph (217 km/h). Senna was removed from the car and treated by the side of the car before being airlifted to Bologna hospital where he was later declared dead. It is believed that the right front wheel catapulted back into the cockpit, striking Senna on the right side of his helmet, forcing his head back against the headrest and causing fatal skull fractures. His death was mourned as a national tragedy in his home-country Brazil and in fact the world over.

Legal cases ensued in the following years and it was only in 2007 that an Italian court determined that the accident was caused by a steering column failure. This failure was caused by badly designed and badly executed modifications.

Safety become top-priority: The FIA rushed to amend safety provisions which resulted in more chaos than actual improvements that were intended at.

Major provisions:
-    FIA required all Formula One cars' airboxes to be perforated to reduce their "ram-air" effect, to reduce power.
-    Special racing fuels, previously an exotic mixture of benzenes and toluenes, were banned to reduce power as well.
-    To reduce downforce, and therefore the cornering speed of the cars, a wooden "plank" was to be fitted beneath the central portion of the chassis, forcing a large section of the floor further away from the track.
-    Maximum engine displacement was reduced from 3.5 litres to 3 litres.

In 1996, as part of his plan to rebuild Ferrari, Jean Todt (executive director of Scuderia Ferrari) brought Michael Schumacher to the team from Benetton. Schumacher immediately bore his team results, winning three races. 

Renault's exit from the Formula One Championships at the end of the 1997 season was also an important development.

The last few years of that decade saw a healthy competition ensuing between Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen of McLaren Mercedes, though the latter enforced wins with greater ferocity.

New millennium, brand new stage (2000 onwards)
The Y2k years saw Schumacher and his Ferrari reach the peak of motor-racing glory. Such was the dominance of the prancing horse that the rest of the teams (and drivers) were rendered battling amongst themselves.

In 2000, Schumacher became the first 3-time champion after Senna. Though the Williams began to reassert themselves with a BMW partnership, there was no stopping Ferrari who finished all and won 15 of the 17 races in the 2002 season. McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen and Williams' Juan Pablo Montoya gave a strong fight in the following season along with rule changes but Schumacher again clinched the coveted title.

The strong showing of Ferrari which became a part of the calendar year-in and year-out forced teams like McLaren and Williams to come out with radically changed cars. But it was Renault with Fernando Alonso that finally got the break through on Ferrari and took the title in 2005. The year also marked the end of the V10 era which had become very popular once the turbo-charge was banned in 1989.

Summarising the major changes:
-    The Ford Motor Company's decision to withdraw from Formula One at the end of 2004 exposed the vulnerabilities of some small teams. Not only was their works Jaguar team sold to Austrian Red Bull, but the few remaining small independent teams, who traditionally had used Ford engines, found their engine supply in a precarious state.
-    Red Bull also went onto purchase Minardi and renamed it Scuderia Toro Rosso in 2005.
-    Jordan was bought by Russo-Canadian steel company Midland early in 2005 and was renamed Midland F1 for the 2006 season.
-    BMW bought a majority stake in Sauber in 2005 which became their factory entry. The Williams team ceased their partnership with BMW as a result, entering a commercial arrangement with Cosworth instead.
-    Michelin announced in December 2005 that it would quit Formula One at the end of the 2006 season, leaving Bridgestone as the sole supplier from 2007. This was days after FIA had announced that it would have only one tire supplier from 2008 season.
-    Indian liquor baron Vijay Mallaya bought the Spyker F1 team in 2007 and renamed it as Force India.

Post Schumi phase
The 2007 season saw a dominant performance from a resurgent McLaren. Fernando Alonso and his rookie teammate, Lewis Hamilton put up a good showing but could not stop Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonnen from taking the championship. Hamilton though registered 9 consecutive podium finishes in what was his debut season.

He returned to clinch the 2008 season though it was a more open-ended battle than in the years before. Ferrari though, walked away with the constructors title, their 8th in a single decade.

The 2009 season saw many changes including standardizing the engine or KERS. Debates ensued as the major reason in cost cutting due to recession was questioned by the smaller teams. Other changes included a drastic reduction in testing times and an increase in the required engine and gearbox mileage. New teams like Brawn GP and Red Bull Racing made a deep impact as a result while the veterans in McLaren and Ferrari finished poorly.

The 2010 season too was closely fought and it was Red Bull Racing that notched up top scores. Sebastian Vettel of Germany won the drivers' championship after the final race and became the youngest ever to do so. The points system underwent a change to make it more competitive. Since 2003, points had been awarded to the top eight finishers, on a 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1. The 2010 system awarded the top ten classified finishers on a 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 basis. McLaren and Ferrari gave a good fight but were forced to play catch up after Red Bull got the early technical advantage. With the margin of victory promising to get closer, the 2011 season promises more excitement, thrill and sheer speed than any before.

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Story first published on: Thursday, 24 March 2011 17:13

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